Crime and Punishment

Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice

All states have police forces (in Texas, the Department of Public Safety and the Texas Rangers), and in most states there are also local police and county sheriffs’ departments. In addition, states have specialized law enforcement agencies such as fish and game wardens.

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Federal agencies such as the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms), CBP (Customs and Border Protection), ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), and DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) also affect state law enforcement. States have added homeland security coordinators following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and creation of the federal agency Department of Homeland Security.

Criminal justice policy:  Most criminal activity today is committed by 18-25 year olds.  The current criminal justice systems of the states began in the 1960s in part by the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretations of the Bill of Rights. Prior to the 1960s, criminal justice was largely left up to the states.  Three key Court decisions were:

*Mapp v. Ohio (1961) – involving search and seizure and the exclusionary rule (evidence obtained illegally must be excluded);
*Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) – requiring provision of an attorney for all defendants accused of a felony
*Miranda v. Arizona (1966) – requiring police to inform suspects of their constitutional rights before questioning.

Criticisms of these federal Court decisions include:  more costs for states and more difficulty in convicting criminals. There has been an increase in expenses but appointed attorneys are paid little and often lack expertise and experience, especially in death penalty cases. Occasionally, evidence against suspects and their incriminating statements are thrown out, but this happens fairly rarely.

Crime has been going down across the country since the early 1990s. Why?

*More criminals are in prison for longer terms (over 2 million people are incarcerated in the U.S., mostly in state prisons and local jails).
*More police were added in the mid-1990s through a federal grant program during the Clinton administration. Since the grants have now expired, state and local governments had to find money to retain the law enforcement officers hired in the mid-1990s.
*Demographics: the proportion of young men in the population is lower, and the economy was relatively strong until 2008, and has slowly improved in the last few years.

Theories for punishment include:
*retribution:  to punish someone for a crime they committed
*rehabilitation:  to prepare someone to re-enter society though education and job skills development
*incapacitation:  to prevent a convicted individual from committing further crimes
*deterrence: to deter others from committing a similar crime
Rehabilitation has less support than retribution and incapacitation.  Whether punishment serves as deterrence is still unsettled.

The public across the country favors harsh punishment.  The incarceration for the United States is higher than in other countries. A 2012 public opinion poll by the University of Texas/Texas Tribune showed, for example, that 73 percent of Texans supported the death penalty and 51 percent said they thought the death penalty had been implemented fairly (28% thought it had not been applied fairly and 21% didn’t know) (

Death penalty: As of June 2019,29 states plus the federal government retain the death penalty. Texas has about 230 people on death row. There have been 1500 executions since 1976; 561 (37%) of these have been in Texas (

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court banned execution of mentally retarded offenders. In 2005, the Court prohibited the execution of juveniles, those under age 18 (at the time of the offense). Issues regarding the death penalty including racial bias, the often poor quality of attorneys representing death penalty defendants, and the possibility of executing innocent defendants continue to drive debates over the use of the death penalty.

Criminal Justice Reforms

The textbook chapter outlines a number of criminal justice reforms. These include some sentencing reforms, so that fewer nonviolent offenders are sentenced to prison and so that some inmates serving long sentences can be released. They also include some new programs to provide more mental health and drug and alcohol treatment, and some new education and job training programs.

Criminal Justice and Minorities

The textbook also highlights several issues regarding minorities, especially African-Americans, and the criminal justice system. These include disparate treatment by police, by prosecutors, and by sentencing laws. All these issues serve to create a very different environment and perception of police and the criminal justice system for minorities.

Terms and Ideas

Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Rangers

County sheriffs, local police, and other state and local law enforcement
Federal agencies affecting state law enforcement
Three Supreme Court decisions affecting state criminal justice systems:
*Mapp v. Ohio (1961)
Exclusionary rule
*Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)
*Miranda v. Arizona (1966)
Criticisms of Supreme Court decisions
Theories of punishment:
Why has crime been going down since the 1990’s?
Death penalty issues and statistics

Criminal justice reforms

Criminal justice and minorities

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